Gabe Brown is a pioneer in regenerative land management, which helps restore soil health. I had the opportunity to visit his farm in Bismarck, North Dakota, this past July. Brown travels widely to teach people how to build soil, without which you cannot grow nutrient-dense food.
I previously interviewed him online but decided it was time to visit him on his farm and see his operation firsthand. Unfortunately, we had not anticipated the drought he had when we planned the visit. I believe he only had a quarter-inch of rain the entire year when I visited him on July 8, so the videos we shot were not as impressive as they could have been, but nevertheless were orders of magnitude better than his neighboring farmers that were still using conventional methods.
The challenge facing most farmers today is that conventional agriculture has really decimated the topsoil with tilling and the use of synthetic fertilizers, both of which disrupt and destroy microbial life. Maria-Helena Semedo of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has warned that at the current rate of topsoil degradation, all the world’s topsoil will be gone in less than 60 years.1
Brown’s farm was founded by his in-laws in 1956. They farmed it conventionally, using tillage, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals until 1991, when Brown and his wife purchased the farm. Brown continued farming conventionally until 1993, when a good friend and no-till farmer convinced him to make that transition. Two years later, in 1995, he began diversifying his crops.
“There’s approximately 32,000 tons of atmospheric nitrogen above every acre,” Brown says. “All we have to do as producers is to plant legumes and inoculate it with the rhizobia, and it’ll take that nitrogen and convert it. In other words, make it available to the plant. I started growing peas, some clovers and alfalfa in order to do that.
We still had 1,200 acres of spring wheat in ’95. The day before I was going to start combining, I lost 100 percent of that crop to hail. I had no insurance, because it just didn’t hail here very often. Well, that was pretty devastating. 1996 came along and I started planting corn. I started planting species like triticale and vetch and trying to diversify the rotation a little bit. Unfortunately, we lost 100 percent of our crop to hail again. That was two years in a row.”
The Silver Lining
While devastating, two seasons of crop residue left on the ground had a remarkably beneficial effect. He began noticing more earthworms. The soil felt moister. In 1991, the soil on the farm could only infiltrate a half-inch of rainfall per hour. In other words, if it rained 1 inch, half of it ran off. Organic matter levels were only about 1.8 percent. Historically speaking, soil scientists tell us the organic matter in healthy soil should be in the 7 to 8 percent range.
What this meant was that three-quarters of the carbon in the soil had been lost due to improper farming methods. When 1997 brought a major drought, again, for the third time in a row, he was unable to harvest any cash crops. He still needed feed for his livestock, though, so he began planting cowpeas and Sorghum-Sudangrass, which he let the livestock graze on. He simply couldn’t afford hay. The following year, 1998, 80 percent of his crops were again lost to hail, for the fourth year in a row.
“It was hell to go through, but I tell people it was the best thing that could have happened to me, because that got me moved down the path of regenerative agriculture,” Brown says. “Due to the changes we saw on the soil, we started growing more cover crops. Back then, I just thought of it as livestock feed. But we realized that we truly can grow topsoil.
Those same soils that back in ’91 were 1.7 to 1.9 percent organic matter today are in the 5.5 to 7 percent range. Infiltration rates, where I used to only infiltrate a half of an inch per hour, we can now infiltrate an inch in nine seconds, and the second inch in 16 seconds. We’re in a 15-inch moisture environment here in Bismarck, North Dakota. Whatever moisture falls, it’s going to be able to infiltrate and be used.
It’s been a learning process over the past 20 years. How do healthy ecosystems function? We’ve really studied that and learned that it’s all these components together. We’re at the place now in our operation where we no longer use any synthetic fertilizers. We don’t use pesticides. We don’t use any fungicides. We do occasionally, in certain circumstances, use an herbicide, but it’s very selective.
It’s never while the crop is growing. It’s always before it’s growing. We do not use glyphosate. It’s only in a select situation because I refuse to till, because tillage is so detrimental to the mycorrhiza, fungi and soil biology. Now, we’re at the point where we have a healthy functioning soil ecosystem. It’s able to provide the nutrients that those plants need. In turn then, it provides those nutrients, not only to the plants, but to the animals and, hopefully, to us as people.”
Synthetic Phosphorous Is Unnecessary
Brown has been fortunate enough to be visited by many of the top scientists in the world. One of the important lessons he’s learned from them is that very few agricultural areas have a deficiency in phosphorus. Farmers have for a long time been told they need to apply phosphorous, yet Rick Haney, with the Texas Agricultural Research Service (ARS), claims there’s not a single peer-reviewed research paper demonstrating it has a positive effect on plants.
The current production model is based on yields. The entire farm program, and the payments farmers receive from the government are all based on yield. Revenue insurance is also obtained based on past yields. But yields have nothing to do with nutrition. Synthetic phosphorous may increase yield somewhat, but does nothing to improve the nutrient content of the food.
“Big business, the chemical and fertilizer companies, tell [farmers], ‘The only way to get this yield is with our improved stacked trait genetic hybrids, and then the fertilizer — that’s needed; all these inputs,’ which is a total fallacy, because that’s not how ecosystems function,” Brown says.